Name: Noni Olabisi (interviewed by Isabel Rojas-Williams/The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, MCLA)
May 30th, 2012
City of origin: Actually I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and we left St. Louis . . . uh, my mom died when I was about four years old. My father married a woman with five kids, and we were all stair-steps. So it was me, my sister, and my brother—three of us—and so we left St. Louis where my mom passed, to move . . . we stayed about five years in some part of Arkansas, then we moved here to California. So I consider myself really a native of California because I've been here most of my life; for at least fifty, about fifty years, yeah.
How did you find yourself in the arts? You know what, that was a weird situation because . . . I have an actress friend who actually got a call for muralists. Now here it is, it comes to her house, and she comes over to my house and says "fill this out." And I said, "fill it out?" I say "I ain't never did no mural before in my life! You know, I don't know what to do. I never won nothing." She says "So what, fill it out." So I filled it out and my package that I sent in was nothing but portraits. And I had the opportunity to work with Nancy Cox on a SPARC mural. And I did very little, but I still had a sense of, 'oh my god', you know, this is something I could really dig. So anyway, I sent in my package and, lo and behold, I got a call saying, "you won." Oh my god! I was just . . . I was crying, I was so excited, and I was scared at the same time, 'cause I had never done a mural before. So I called up Judy [Baca] and said to her, "what do I do?" she said, "Here are some numbers, you can call them." So one of the numbers was Richard Wyatt. I called him up and said, "How do I paint a mural?" He said, “well first of all you always want to make sure your scale . . . well your small sketch scale, equals the same size of your wall, cause if there's any part off you're going to be off.” And then he said, “number it from letters at the top and numbers at the side, either way.” And that was it and I was trying to ask him more and he just clicked and hung up in my face and I was just scared. So one of my first murals that I ever painted was the Freedom Won't Wait, in 1992. Which was a phenomenal experience. Can I share a little bit about it?
Yes please, that's what we're here for. We want to know the story. The Freedom Won't Wait mural was interesting because at that time Lindsey, Haley, and Alma Lopez were working for Judy Baca at SPARC [Social and Public Art Resource Center]. They were assigned to me and I couldn't come up with a sketch because I am not familiar with painting murals. So I couldn't come up with sketch and they pulled me to the side, they said "Hey look here sister, you holding up my check, you got to come up with your design," because everything is a deadline. So I still couldn't think of anything, and the first time I came up with a sketch I had nothing but faces. When I took the sketch to Judy, Judy said, "I'm so tired of African-Americans, Black folks, doing head shots. She said, “tell a story.” And so, that gave me an idea, because I don’t know nothing about murals. She said, “Richard Wyatt is already doing faces, so you tell a story.” How the story came about was, because in 1992, it was the uprising; the beating of Rodney King, and I worked at a barbershop that was across from the wall that the mural was painted on. When I first asked, one of first criteria of painting a mural is you have to find your own wall. So I asked my boss if I could paint a mural on his wall, and he said, “no I don’t like stuff on my wall.” But when the uprising of '92 happened, they were burning down every building that wasn’t black. Then he said, “you can paint a mural on my wall.” Hahaha he was ready then. Anyway, so we’re in the barbershop and I’m cutting hair and one of my coworkers came to me (because everyone is watching the first verdict on the T.V.: the beating of Rodney King). When they said not guilty of the police officers beating Rodney King, across the board, the shop became very chaotic. When the shop got all chaotic one of my coworkers came to me and he said, “Do you know what that means Noni? That means open season on black people.” I thought, oh my god, there it is and it was like something burst inside and the story started to birth itself. So it was just phenomenal how murals are birthed. You know you think it’s something that you’re doing but it’s actually an interplay of everybody around you and the spirit inside of you. And I have to say this: I wanted the wall to scream. I wanted the wall to scream because, there was an incident that happened where it was a patron, now I didn’t see the beginning and I don’t know why she had a knife, but she had a knife in her hand and she was surrounded by nine police officers, and they drop kicked her right in front of that wall. They laser tied her and dropped her like a hog, like you would tie a hog. Dropped her right on that cement and when I saw that, then I said I wanted that wall to scream, with everything that was going on, I wanted that wall to scream. A lot of times how I get my images, because I’m a little chicken, rather than be accused of creating chaos, what I would do is I would get images from different events that were happening around the world like in South Africa there was the apartheid, so you saw all the faces screaming, and then back in the early 60’s, you have the civil rights movement. So what I wanted to do was incorporate what was already said and done, but tell it in a story that was my way and then adlib some things and then put in the emotions that were going on in the community. Like there were some patrons saying, “no justice no peace.” So I wanted to put that in there. Also, the murals become a community where I’m listening to what they’re saying, what they’re going through, and one of my friends said, “its not freedom cant wait,” because that’s what I originally wanted to name it, but its, “freedom wont wait.” So I used it. So I listen to what the people say and then I incorporate it. It kind of reminds me of Diego Rivera, which is one of my favorites, because he says he listens to what the people say. He draws what he sees.
Where do you draw your inspiration?I have just been fascinated by art. As a kid, growing up, and going to Horace Mann Junior High School, I remember one of my teachers who said to me - I used to think I was cheated out of art, because they didn’t teach me - They would tell me, “here you take this big sheet of paper, and they would give everybody else the little sheet of paper.” They said, “you do what you want to do,” and I never could understand that. But as I got older I realized they saw something in me.
Describe yourself in 5 words: Haha, um in five words. I would say… it would be egotistical of me to say highly favored, but I really believe that there is something greater inside of me that wants to show me something and teach me something. So, describe myself… [an] "instrument of the most high".
What was the most memorable response to your work? You talked earlier about the mural that you created about the riots. How did people react to that? The peoples response to it was like a relief, because what’s on the mural was things they would like to say, and don’t say it, so it becomes one voice. The mural is not even mine, because it took me something like ten years later before I actually saw the mural because I really felt like I was possessed. And then I realized when I looked at it, I said you know what, I know I didn’t do this alone.
When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing? Well, you know what, I got baptized October 9th of last year 2011. It has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life, besides taking a personal training and development course for five years, to discover that a lot of the way I was thinking, a lot of the ways I was speaking, came from the development outside of me. Now, it’s time to discover the well of information that is inside of me, without the outside influence. To have my voice. What I’m finding is that, oh my god, if I had known this, because I’m reading the bible, and I’m not reading the bible from the stand point of the pastor or the people in the congregation or even outside influences, I’m reading it for myself, and when you read it for yourself, there is a greater understanding, at least for me. And so now what I’m attuning myself to, and putting my ears and eyesight to, is turning my eyes inwardly and my ears inwardly so I can hear what the spirit is trying to tell me. Not trying to tell me, but is telling me, but am I going to be patient enough to listen? So what’s happening to me right now is a lot of meditation, a lot of alone time, and reading spiritual books, and just paying attention. And I’m starting to love people, because I think that the biggest game that has been played on us is the race game. That’s the biggest trick that’s been played on man, because when you really look into people’s eyes, you see the oneness. In the words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “loving somebody for the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.” Its beautiful to have your own thoughts, because I’ve been taken by a lot of other thoughts, but to have your own thoughts is one of the greatest gifts you can have before you leave this Earth.
Who were some of your mentors?I read mostly books, and I looked at the images or go to the museums, so my mentors were from the books. I loved Rembrandt, because I like how he captured the realism of people, but I wanted to do black people in the same essence that he did his people. I would say mentors for me were people like Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and there’s a panther guy and I cant seem to think of his name. He was the cartoonist for the panther newspaper. Emory Douglas! I loved him, because he boldly expressed what he was feeling, what he was seeing, and he took the heart of the people in mind when he created his work. That really influenced me a lot, because I felt like by him telling the truth; the way he was telling truth, he put his life on the line for the people. You know that old saying, “serving the people with body, mind, soul and spirit,” and he embodies that. Then I have, like I said, I love the Los Tres Grandes. That’s Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. I had the opportunity to go to Mexico City, and inside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, oh my god; they could have locked me up in there. It’s so beautiful. The work still looks like it’s freshly painted. In fact I tell people I got married in Mexico, and I got married to the art, because I vowed to be truthful in my deliverance. What that truthfulness is, is what I’m starting to get now from the spirituality. I can’t wait to see what comes through.
So what are we going to see next? What are your future projects? Are you working on anything? Well actually I am. I’m working on a series about my baptism, because it was phenomenal. Willie Middlebrook documented it, and I’m telling you, he did a beautiful job and I want to do some things in regards to the baptism and how it felt for me personally. Outside of everybody else’s chatter and talking, I want to talk about how it felt for me. I want to render my relationship with the most high.
Which of your murals is your favorite? Why? Well, I love all of them, because they tell a story and they’re the stepping-stones to my development of where I am today. The Panther mural I love dearly. I love it so much because when I was growing up, they put their lives on the line for me, when I was chicken. I always tell people I had a yellow streak going down my back. It was my first encounter with people that didn’t mind protecting the community, with the law books in their hand, and at the time, you know it was the right to bear arms, but they didn’t have any bullets in the guns. I just thought that they meant so much to me. So that’s the dearest to my heart, the closest to my heart, because I had the opportunity to meet a lot of the panthers when I was rendering that mural. So that’s one of my favorite, and then one of my next favorite, because they kind of run side by side, is the one that Raul Gonzalez and I did. ‘Resurrection’, at Dawson High School, which is torn down now, because they wanted to build a gym. So I’m glad that Willie Middlebrook, once again, documented it. Its one of my favorites because it was, you know I don’t want to leave Alma out either, because the reason why the collaboration with the Latino artists was to show the cultural similarities, and when you show the cultural similarities, then you show . . .
We are all equal. Exactly!
We are all equal. We are closer and we are family. Yes. Yes, and that’s what we wanted to do to bridge the two communities together.
So the messages that you try to convey in your murals, as you said earlier, are to express the humanity of the people in the community, the concerns of the community, the politics of the community, the spirituality of the community, and in a way, what you have been doing is embracing all of us. It was so important to me and to all of us at the Mural Conservancy to interview you, because we feel that you have what we need. We need to be family, we need to embrace each other, we need to embrace the younger generation and you’re doing that so well. We are so grateful that you do what you do. We are looking forward to what’s coming next. Thank you!